But how is this possible? First, the numbers of fungi inhabiting planet earth is immense. They are everywhere and you’ve probably experienced them in the form of dandruff or the dreaded athlete’s foot. So when black fungus was found growing on the walls of the still highly radioactive Chernobyl reactor, it wasn’t too exciting, until Dr. Auturo Casadevall began to wonder if the fungus was actually using the radiation as an energy/food source.
“But I thought fungi were decomposers”, you might be saying to yourself, and you’d be right. Because fungi lack chlorophyll, fungi cannot synthesize their own energy source and therefore must consume organic compounds for fuel. Then how might fungus incorporate radiation, something very akin to sunlight, into their metabolism? The answer is melanin.
Yup, I do mean the melanin in our skin that protects us from sunburns (or lack there of for our fair-skinned friends). However, fungi seem to use their melanin for energy capture rather than the acquisition of the perfect summer tan. Studies show that when the melanized fungal cells of Wangiella dermatitidis and Cryptococcus neoformans encounter 500 times the amount of background radiation they actually grow faster even under nutrition-limited conditions unlike their unmelaninized counterparts.
So, when and if a nuclear holocaust does occur, the cockroaches will have plenty of food to munch on. In the meantime, science could utilize these melanin-rich fungi to expand our knowledge of energy capture in the human body, or even radiation clean-up, currently an unexplored arena.
While I don’t expect fungi to sprout legs, don a spidey suit, and fight nuclear-aftermath crimes, I do think they are a start to recolonizing highly radioactive areas and that seems close enough to a super hero power.